By Ricky O’Bannon
robannon@bsomusic.org

What does it mean when a symphony orchestra concert arises to the level of international incident?

On the heels of a possible nuclear deal between Iran, the United States and several other world powers like Germany, conductor Daniel Barenboim had been working to bring the orchestra of the Berlin State Opera, where he is music director, to Tehran for a concert.

It sounds simple enough. Barenboim is something of a leading figure in the world of classical music diplomacy. In 1999 he co-founded the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra with Palestinian scholar Edward Said, which brought together young musicians of Arab, Israeli and Iranian descent in Spain to promote a peaceful resolution to Middle East conflicts.

Last week Barenboim’s Tehran concert came under fire from both Iranian and Israeli authorities. Israeli Culture Minister Miri Regev denounced the concert on Wednesday saying it would harm the country’s goal of blocking the nuclear deal and encourages the delegitimizing of Israel.

Meanwhile in Iran, Cultural Ministry spokesman Hossein Noushabadi said on Friday that they would block the concert as long as the orchestra was led by Barenboim. The reason given was that a review showed that Barenboim had Israeli citizenship and his parents have also lived in the country. Apparently fearing the security threat posed by a 72-year-old conductor wielding a baton, Noushabadi said Iran would block Barenboim — who holds citizenship in Israel, Palestine and Argentina — from entering the country.

There is an adage in political reporting that if both sides accuse you of bias toward their rival, you are probably doing your job well. Regardless of how you might feel about the political backdrop, if the controversy surrounding a concert tells us anything, it’s that classical music and a symphony orchestra are still culturally powerful, and to some, even dangerous.

Whether it’s rock, punk or hip-hop, when authorities are compelled to reign in musicians, it is an acknowledgment of the power that those artists or that music posses. Were Dmitri Shostakovich a mediocre composer, he would not have garnered the attention he did from Soviet authorities and Stalin. For artists like the Sex Pistols who pride themselves on subversion and provocation, that acknowledgment is worn like a badge of honor.

There is no greater evidence of cultural relevancy than to be deemed a political liability. It’s the type of street cred many musicians could only dream of. Had the ever-self-promoting rapper Kanye West not been busy announcing his 2020 presidential bid at an award show over the weekend, he might be looking at Barenboim and trying to figure out how to get banned from Iran, too.

This is not obvious cultural territory for an orchestra or classical music. While composers writing today might certainly look to be politically provocative or write about the world in which they live, for the most part, the music that would have been performed in Tehran is likely to have been written by authors who are long dead about circumstances and realities few are around to remember.

And yet, its meaning is malleable. When Beethoven used Friedrich Schiller’s poem, “Ode to Joy,” it carried with it the heartfelt convictions of a man raised during the European Enlightenment. But whether it is Leonard Bernstein’s performance in a reunified Berlin, Chilean protestors singing of it during the Pinochet dictatorship or even its repeated use in the Die Hard movie franchise, each new performance is imbued with a new meaning. This, in essence, is the power of a living art form that centers upon live performance.

Today, cultural diplomacy through concerts might seem low stakes compared to the Cold War era when the U.S. government devoted an entire agency to flying classical and jazz musicians around the world to perform against a backdrop of mutually assured destruction. But the controversy out of Iran and Israel should remind us all that these efforts still carry significant meaning to those involved.

Whether it’s Lorin Maazel leading the New York Philharmonic to North Korea in 2008, the Minnesota Orchestra’s recent trip to Cuba or BSO Music Director Marin Alsop’s upcoming concert in Havana, the continuing relevancy of cultural diplomacy and classical music is reaffirmed by the controversy that surrounds it. After all, music is pretty powerful stuff.